Caught in a cult's dark embrace

Victor Barnard played the shepherd, wearing linen clothes and sometimes wielding a shepherd’s crook.

The minister kept his flock close, urging members of the River Road Fellowship to move to four clusters of properties in this rural area and discouraging the girls from traveling to town. As he grew more controlling, he warned his followers against those who might turn against him — calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing.

“That always gets to me now,” former congregant Micah Vail said. “He used that analogy over and over. … It turned out he was the one who was playing everybody.”

Barnard, 52, is now the center of a nationwide manhunt after Pine County prosecutors charged him with using his status within the sect to coerce girls into having sex with him. Two women told investigators that Barnard raped them after they were chosen, at ages 12 and 13, to live near him as part of an honored and cloistered group of “maidens.” He faces 59 counts of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

In interviews since the charges, several former congregants said they are saddened — but not shocked — by the allegations after reflecting on how Barnard increasingly cut the fellowship off from society. The ministry changed, too, as Barnard introduced new rules under the guise of religion. It ended as a place where adultery and sex abuse could have secretly flourished, they said.

Such an isolated religious sect is the “perfect environment for abusers to victimize kids,” said Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who researches alternative religions.

Oftentimes, leaders do not answer to any outside authority, “so there’s no accountability,” Kent said. They create structures to have exclusive access to children. Then they use religion to “cloak their misbehavior.”

A simpler life

At first, there was no camp. No leader, even. Small groups of former followers of the Way International, an Ohio-based sect that splintered in the mid-1980s, would gather in homes to study the Bible and, when spring came, sing around a campfire.

After meeting through the Way and moving to Rush City, Minn., in 1991, Barnard and David Larsen pledged to one another that this fellowship would not fall to the same fate as the Way, which was plagued by allegations of adultery.

“We openly talked about it, addressed it, that it was wrong — that we would never go that route,” Larsen said, his eyes wide. “We even made a commitment, a personal commitment to each other that we would never allow that kind of thing.”

A few of the Twin Cities-based fellowships united behind Barnard, and more followed, until eventually the handsome preacher shifted from fellowship member to spiritual leader.

“They loved the good things he was doing — and there were good things,” said a former member of the inner circle who asked not to be named. “He would endeavor to love people and help them if they had problems.”

Ruth Johnson joined the fellowship in the early 1990s, impressed by its loving sense of community and Barnard’s charismatic leadership.

“When he started out as the minister,” Johnson said, “he was a very good teacher.”

After renting out parks and campsites for religious retreats, the River Road Fellowship in 1996 purchased an 85-acre camp here for $575,000, christening it Shepherd’s Camp.

Initially, leaders intended the wooded lakeside camp to be a home for short-term spiritual retreats. But Barnard began encouraging his followers to move close to the century-old cabins and newer buildings along a dirt road 5 miles southwest of town. Gradually, families sold their homes and packed their belongings to live a simpler life in east-central Minnesota.

Residents planted gardens, then canned vegetables. They raised cows, sheep and chickens. They sewed clothes.

“Everybody there loved the lifestyle,” said Larsen, a trustee who helped acquire and oversee Shepherd’s Camp.

As the fellowship grew to 150 people, the height of its membership, families spread to simple homes clustered around four areas they knew as Shepherd’s Camp, Maiden’s Love, Three Taverns and Fair Haven. Barnard urged them to work for businesses of fellowship members, butchering meat, building cabinets and making soap.

From God’s word to Barnard’s

It happened so gradually that former leaders barely noticed that Barnard was now calling all the shots.

“It’s like anything else — everything comes a little piece at a time,” said the member of Barnard’s inner circle. “You’re not going to get some blatant, ‘I’m king now.’ … You start first with somebody calling him Apostle, then he ends up teaching about [being] Jesus Christ in the flesh.”

Congregants listened to recordings of Barnard preaching and read books authored by him. After leaving the fellowship, Vail and his younger brother, Isaiah, got rid of much of it. But they kept a few books.

One hardcover, “Considerations of Jesus Christ the Apostle and High Priest,” carries Barnard’s name on its maroon leather binding. In the book’s introduction, Barnard credits Victor Paul Wierwille, the former leader of the Way International as first teaching him the truths of Jesus Christ.

One of the hallmarks of the Way — and, in the beginning, the River Road Fellowship — was the belief that everyone should read and interpret the Bible for themselves, rather than rely on clergy, the inner-circle member said. But gradually, Barnard put his own twist on biblical sayings to convince his followers to do his bidding, he said.

Most congregants lived within a 5-mile radius, but rather than gather in a sanctuary to worship, small groups held their own home services, often listening to CDs of Barnard preaching. He was revered, and groups planned events around his visits.

“If you were Catholic,” Johnson said, “it would be like the pope coming.”

No time for rest

So when, in July 2000, Barnard created a group of 10 girls and young women, ages 12 to 24, who would be sent to live near him on the Shepherd’s Camp, without their families, parents considered it an honor.

Lindsay Tornambe was 13 when her parents dropped her off for what she thought would be summer camp. Instead it became a new life.

Maidens lived in their own quarters and were home schooled. They arranged music for church and hosted the events at Shepherd’s Camp. “All the young girls looked up to us,” Tornambe said.

Within about a month, Tornambe said, Barnard called her to his lodge and asked her about masturbation, she said. She didn’t know what that meant, and when she seemed confused, he grew angry, hitting her. Later that night he raped her, she said.

It happened again and again, Tornambe said, up to five times a month: If she wasn’t acting spiritual it would be less frequent, she said; if she was deep into the faith, he would “reward” her. Tornambe said she remembers being instructed to use a female contraceptive early on with Barnard. That ended, she said, after Barnard went in for surgery. He explained that he could no longer produce children, she remembers.

He met with Tornambe’s parents at one point and told them he may or may not have sex with her, she recalls, even though he had already repeatedly raped her. “He told me it was his way of being able to show me God’s love.”

Tornambe is one of two former maidens whose reports form the basis of the charges against Barnard. The other woman told investigators a similar story, saying that she was 12 when Barnard first raped her. He told her that “sex with him was not wrong because he was a Man of God and she would remain a virgin because of it,” according to the complaint. She kept calendars, marking an “X” every time they had sex. It added up to nearly a decade of alleged abuse.

The day after Barnard first touched her sexually, the charges say, he sent her a card: “To my beloved … I thank God for you as I remember your tears and love and believing. I have you in my heart, and I’m so glad to be waiting and watching and longing together for our beloved lord Jesus Christ. Kept by His love together with you, Victor.”

Tornambe started to talk with a friend about how “weird” the meetings were, she said. Another maiden stopped them, telling them they would get in trouble.

All the maidens “knew what was going on,” Tornambe said. “But it was something we never talked about.”

Meanwhile, the fellowship continued functioning without any knowledge of what was happening, Tornambe said.

It might be hard to understand why parents would willingly turn their child over to such a leader, said Kent, the professor. But in his research, it’s a common theme. “People who make these choices believe that their leaders are spiritually unique and godlike,” Kent said. “Any contact with them is supposed to enhance a follower’s spiritual development.”

In a way, fellowship members regarded the “maidens” as nuns, Larsen said. “They made a commitment to stay single and serve God the rest of their lives,” he said. “In that sense, it didn’t seem super odd.”

Growing up inside

Sometimes, when he was alone in the pickup he drove for work, Micah Vail turned on the radio. Those few illicit minutes were pretty much all he heard of the outside world, said Vail, now 23, in his St. Paul home. If you had asked him who the U.S. president was then, he wouldn’t have known.

The boys of River Road Fellowship awoke at 5 a.m. each day for “animal care” and went to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. In between, they made cabinets, baled hay and read the Bible.

Some of the work benefited Barnard. The Vail brothers spent months outfitting and landscaping a large house he lived in that they call “the mansion,” complete with cedar trim, granite countertops, porches and patios.

Barnard drove a Cadillac Escalade and a motorcycle. He took trips to Brazil, congregants said, and had a tour bus, finished in chrome and leather, that he used to bring maidens to Gooseberry Falls and boys to Colorado to study mountain goats.

The young men had a leadership group, too, called the Gamblers, but they were given freedom the girls were not, Vail said.

As the rules got stricter, girls didn’t go out. They wore long skirts, high-collared shirts and their hair tied back. Boys and girls were kept separate and when they did talk, the girls kept their eyes focused on the floor.

They were taught to be rude to outsiders, said Vail, who spent more than a decade in the fellowship. “Anyone who didn’t believe what we believed was an evil person.”

A fellowship member and friend of Cindi Currie was wooing her to move her family there from Pennsylvania. Before deciding, Currie paid a visit.

Members were polite and welcoming. But during her five-day visit she felt suffocated.

“They could do nothing without asking permission,” Currie recalled. When her friend tried to rest with a pounding headache and another woman telephoned about chores, Currie saw her friend jump up to work.

During fellowship services, she noticed, children sat still and didn’t talk. They looked fearful.

Everything pointed toward submission to Barnard, she said. .

People who questioned Barnard were harshly and publicly reprimanded and sometimes physically punished by group leaders. Former member Andy Schweiss said he was hit when he was 12 with a 2-by-4 for something he doesn’t even remember anymore. Misbehaving children were verbally lashed, Currie said. Barnard spit in someone’s face, Johnson recalled.

There was always fear of getting punished for doing something wrong or saying the wrong thing. “Fear was the main thing that kept this in check,” Vail said.

Adults who weren’t compliant risked being shunned, losing jobs, friends and the community that they had come to depend upon. Some lost their families.

A broken promise

In 2008, the group’s tight bond began to unravel.

A woman who had left the River Road Fellowship wrote Barnard a note, threatening to expose the fact that he was having several extramarital affairs with adult women in his congregation. Others who learned of the allegations began to pressure Barnard, too.

Barnard called the congregation together and made a stunning announcement.

“He told people, ‘I’ve had affairs,’ ” the former inner-circle leader said. “If you want to know if it involves your spouse, you can talk to me. It was earth-shattering — just a betrayal.”

The Pine County Sheriff’s Office first heard complaints about Barnard in 2008, when congregants reported that Barnard was sleeping with married women. But County Attorney John Carlson declined to press charges. In a letter explaining why, prosecutors said that “the sad truth is, these individuals admit they were essentially ‘brainwashed’ by Barnard and readily and willingly did what he wanted them to do,” according to a copy given to Fox 9 News earlier this year.

The letter also noted that there were reports of sexual abuse of juveniles in the congregation but concluded they were “merely suspicion.”

After learning of the alleged adultery, some River Road leaders suspected that the abuse might have extended to the youngest maidens. They also worried about a second group of girls and young women, formed later, called the Auriga’s Band.

But even after Barnard admitted to sleeping with married women, many of congregants remained loyal to him, Larsen said. “That was almost a double betrayal,” he said. “Are you kidding me?”

It’s unclear what remains of River Road Fellowship.

As the group splintered, Barnard and dozens of others moved to Washington, where they quickly set up businesses in Spokane and outside of Cheney, a community southwest of the city. Former members say that even after the charges, many followers are standing beside Barnard.

“The people who know him are not being cooperative,” said Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole. The women in the Auriga group, too, won’t talk, he said.

Barnard and his wife established a nutrition company, and his wife registered Waymarks, a publishing company they’d also had in Minnesota. Several of the maidens opened a cleaning company in Cheney, while members of Auriga’s Band founded one in Bellingham.

Other leaders of the group, including Craig Elmblad and Randy Roark, also settled in eastern Washington.

A former landlord of Roark’s when he and his wife rented a double-wide trailer in Cheney, said 10 or 15 people would often come to their home for Sunday evening services.

“They were reclusive and seldom ever associated with other people,” he said. The trailer was on a private road, on 20 acres of pine trees and farmland about 18 miles south of Spokane.

Their daughters didn’t live with them — living about a mile away with other women.

Elmblad, who lives at the address on Barnard’s driver’s license, told a Pine County Sheriff’s deputy in late 2012 that Barnard didn’t live there but occasionally visited.

A reporter recently knocked on the door of the secluded home where several former maidens list a cleaning business. The home has a three-car garage, but two vehicles, including a late-model minivan, sat in the driveway. It’s at the end of a private drive with “no trespassing” signs posted.

Two women in their late 20s answered the door, filming their visitor on a cellphone. They declined to comment and asked the reporter to leave.

Law enforcement officials in Washington state continue to search for Barnard, and tips have poured in from across the state. As of Friday, investigators said there was no sign of him.

Barnard’s last-known address in Pine County is at Fair Haven, at the end of a winding private drive dotted by small homes, a red barn and several squawking chickens.

In the days after the charges were filed, residents there put up a handful of signs. “No trespassing,” they say in orange. “Private drive.”

Cole said investigators spoke with “just about all” fellowship members remaining in Minnesota. “Their association with Victor, they claim, has ended,” he said Thursday. “But we are skeptical.

“And we have our reasons for being skeptical.”

A strange intimacy

Former congregants say they’re bothered by what they didn’t question: Girls leaving their parents to live near Barnard at the camp. Barnard ordering families to uproot and move to one property or another. His growing worry about authorities. Now living in Sartell, Johnson is haunted by the instincts that she didn’t act upon. She noticed Barnard interact too closely with some of the maidens.

“It’s not normal. … When they’re together in a room and she’s helping him on with his coat and he asks her, ‘does my breath smell?’ and she’s smelling his breath and there was an intimacy there,” Johnson said. “It just felt different.”

Johnson knows others might not understand how followers became compliant. “As things are progressing and you’re in it, you don’t see that,” Johnson said.

After starting the camp together, Larsen grew removed from the fellowship’s day-to-day operations, becoming immersed in his cabinet shop. He grew distant from Barnard, occasionally questioning some of his odd actions. Now, he wishes he had fought harder.

“I had huge regret about that — still do,” he said.

Talking with other men who were part of the congregation, Larsen said he told them that “every single one of us should be ashamed of ourselves that we let him do this.”

When the two young women came forward in 2012, Larsen talked with them and was deeply saddened by what he heard.

“He destroyed their lives … he stole their purity, everything,” Larsen said, later adding: “To me it doesn’t get any worse than to use the name of God to do stuff like that.”

 

Tom Sowa, a reporter with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, and Sandy Date, a Star Tribune staff librarian, contributed to this report. jenna.ross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102 jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-618-4008





 

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